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Let's take 4 or 5 survivors living on a more or less friendly island. They have a cosy camp, a source of water, some food and stone tools. They are here for several weeks/months and know they will probably never been rescued.

They're thinking of long term survival and one of the survivor find iron ore in a bog near the camp.

Do you think they will be able to create iron tools using this ore?

I think a furnace is kind-of easy to do but shaping and sharping metal sounds difficult with homemade stone tools only...

I remember this picture showing someone creating a knife from "nothing".

What do you think about it?

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    $\begingroup$ Simulator here. $\endgroup$ – Trang Oul Jan 7 '16 at 9:35
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    $\begingroup$ Obviously, the best way is to scavenge the wreck. Even if it lies 200m underwater, it may be easier than proper iron melting (not diving, but "fishing" the wreck) $\endgroup$ – Madlozoz Jan 7 '16 at 9:45
  • $\begingroup$ Plus, what are you digging the iron ore out with? A kludged together shovel would be easier than by hand. $\endgroup$ – Miller86 Jan 7 '16 at 9:56
  • $\begingroup$ To clarify the problem: are you talking ONLY about crude iron making or about the global problem? $\endgroup$ – Madlozoz Jan 7 '16 at 10:15
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    $\begingroup$ If they know what ore is this than yes. There are videos on youtube on how to smelt and cast tools. Also First people needed to shape and sharp metal without metal. $\endgroup$ – SZCZERZO KŁY Jul 18 '18 at 9:19
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TL;DR: Probably, if they knew exactly what they were doing. And for a certain value of "iron tools"

Smelting

The technology for smelting iron goes back millenia; relatively primitive tribes in northern Europe were able to do it after they figured out how - all you need for that is iron ore and high temperature.

Basically, the device you will be trying to build is a bloomery; a kind of a kiln where you mix fuel with iron ore, set them on fire and raise the temperature usually by driving air in with a set of bellows. Doing this will get you a bloom of iron which you further process basically by hammering it to produce wrought iron. This is a far cry from modern powdered steel, or even crucible steel (which you might be able to figure out later after you've gotten your first generation of iron tools), but it's incomparable to anything you might find just laying around.

Forging

After you've hammered the bloom into an ingot of wrought iron, you might want to shape it into something useful. This will be a slightly trickier part; for this, you need a forge, an anvil, some tools (most prominently tongs), a hammer and some grinding implement.

Building a forge is not terribly difficult; it's really just a bigger fireplace which you fill with charcoal and drive air into using the bellows you had for the bloomery.

A good big piece of hard stone may serve you for an anvil, but its durability will not be great. You may break it in the process, so a better anvil might be one of the first things you'd want to make out of iron.

Tongs are pretty tricky. The only material you might have before iron that would be halfway useful would be some tropical hardwoods, bud make a couple of sets because you'll literaly be burning through them.

Hammer is not much better; you may be able to grind a stone hammerhead, but it will wear quickly and the heat shock may shatter it. Have a couple prepared, and it may last you through your first product.

For grinding, you can just find a whetstone. It will work almost as well as low-end modern grinders, but will take a lot of elbow grease to get anything done.

But yeah, you can make some iron tools (probably starting with an anvil, hammer, and a pair of tongs) and just iterate from there; each new tool you make will help you make a better one next time.

Shopping list

For an end-to-end primitive ironworking pipeline, you need the following:

  • Iron ore (bog iron you described should do)
  • Coal (charcoal will work and is not difficult to produce)
  • Bricks (for the bloomery and maybe the forge)
  • Bellows (can be made out of some wood and some leather)
  • Some rocks (for a primitive anvil and hammer, and a whetstone)
  • Hardwood (for your first sets of tongs)

Summary

It is technically possible to make iron, if you're already familiar with the technology and have an idea of what to look for. It will be work intensive. The quality of metal you produce will be crap even by mediaeval standards. Nonetheless, it will be a huge step up from stone tools or whatever you may found laying about.

If you want to take shortcuts, you could try using copper first and casting an anvil or a hammer to start with. It's not great, but better than rock. If you can scavenge and recycle iron from whatever ship or boat or airplane that got you on the island, it will be enormous help; even the crappiest steel we make today will be better than what you can make on a deserted island, and having tools made of it will give you a huge leg up.

It might be possible to figure out how to make crucible steel, which is a significant step up in quality over iron, but that is a much more involved process that may take years to get right unless you know exactly what you're doing from the start.

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  • $\begingroup$ Is charcoal good enough? I'd never heard that to be an option for iron smelting (for forging, definitely, but smelting?) $\endgroup$ – Cort Ammon Jan 9 '16 at 20:43
  • $\begingroup$ @CortAmmon I'm pretty sure that's what was used originally in Europe outside of the Roman Empire. Large-scale coal mining didn't really take off until the early modern era. $\endgroup$ – Mike L. Jan 11 '16 at 9:10
  • $\begingroup$ I really hope someone does a video series demonstrating that this is possible. $\endgroup$ – Kai Jun 1 '18 at 6:58
  • $\begingroup$ As long as the rock is something robust (think granite not sandstone), it should hold up well as a basic anvil and for hammers. The biggest issue would be smoothing out the surface, as it should hold up to abuse quite well. We aren't talking about using trip hammers here, or even heavy work with a sledgehammer, but just mild work on wrought iron with a light hammer. A durable stone will work fine for that (easily well enough to forge your first set of crude iron tools). We aren't talking about trying to cold work steel. $\endgroup$ – pluckedkiwi Jun 1 '18 at 17:32
  • $\begingroup$ @kai You're in luck. Check out 'Primitive Technology' on youtube. He does many many really cool things, and one of them is building and refining a bloomery out of mud clay. At the end of the process, he does end up with a couple of little beads of iron (although it wasn't his intention to make iron, so it's potentially not as much as if he was going for volume). $\endgroup$ – Ynneadwraith Jun 26 '18 at 8:36
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(note: I'm no survivalist but it happen I spend much time on a mostly desert tropical island)

I cannot find back the story, but I read that it is estimated that a man drop naked on a desert island would need 30 years to forge a needle.

I think main problem would be:

How do you recognize the right rocks/ground

If you have no geologist in the group, you would need month of trial/error before you find the right soil to make a simple brick.
And only then could you think of a oven

How to reach iron melting temperature

Once you have the oven, to make charcoal is pretty straightforward. But to melt iron?
Think about it: during thousand of years, people relied on bronze. It implied to find copper and tin which are both less comon than iron. Then combine them
The reason is not than they never thought about other metal. The reason is that you need to achieve very high temperature (1500°C)

Edit:

This video demonstrate how to smelt iron with VERY basic material. But the result is not exactly a neat iron ingot https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VVV4xeWBIxE

Using anything but anthracite or coke will result in very poor quality(brittle) iron as impurity in the fuel (mostly sulfur) will bound to the hot metal.

Food, housing etc...

To make and maintain a house take time. the first month will probably be only that. And even on a paradise island, it should take about 2 hours/person to get food and pre-boiled water.

Edit: What if you forget about iron and melt aluminium

This does not have this "let's start from zero" appeal, but crash survivors would have access to metal alumium from the crash site.

And heaven on a remote island, you'll probably find enough beer cans to make crude tools.

Aluminium alloy melt around 700°C. That's pretty easy to achieve.

Once again, watch this video to make a furnace more than able to melt aluminium https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VVV4xeWBIxE

Remember that the tools you probably have in mind are from a society where steel can be cheaper than water. Ötzi had a functional axe with only a few grams of copper. One aluminium can provide enough material for a good tool.

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  • $\begingroup$ Also worth of noting: quality of iron heavenly depend on the quality (especially sulfur content) of your coal. Anthracite (rare) or coke (17th century tech) is OK. Charcoal will make super-brittle iron. bog would probably not be able to melt anything. $\endgroup$ – Madlozoz Jan 7 '16 at 9:48
  • $\begingroup$ Thank you for your answer. It's very interesting. I didn't realize the issue regarding the melting temperature. So do you think trying to do metallurgy (including bronze and copper) is a bad idea for long term survival? Should they focus on other raw materials only instead (wood, stone, mud, clay, etc.)? $\endgroup$ – Alex Jan 7 '16 at 10:37
  • $\begingroup$ If you want to do metallurgy, stick on copper. Ötzi axe is a good exemple of practical minimalist tool/weapon. Bronze is another level of complexity. iceman.it/en/axe $\endgroup$ – Madlozoz Jan 7 '16 at 10:46
  • $\begingroup$ You can achieve high temperature if you can blow a lot of air in a mostly sealed furnace. This tech was known in medieval asia. It is what the women do in the forge in Princess Mononoke (shame on you if you don't know this flick). After all, even copper need 1000°C $\endgroup$ – Madlozoz Jan 7 '16 at 10:57
  • $\begingroup$ during thousand of years, people relied on is not a proper argument. They probably did not know about copper/tin/iron ore, higher temperature fuels, etc. for the larger part of that period. Very likely someone somewhere recognized/discovered the possibility of other metals melting at the end of that period and developed that in 1-3 generations. A modern crash survivor knows that iron melting is (theoretically) possible. $\endgroup$ – Jan Doggen Jan 7 '16 at 13:54
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Given that your steatment seems to imply that they reconized it, I suppose that someone in the group have some basic skills in metallurgy, so if the group find the iron ore I would say yes, they probably should be able to create some pretty basic iron tools like a knife blade or a primitive harpoon, and with some luck probably a hammer.

The tools will be pretty primitive, low quality and with low resistance and durability but on the other hand if they don't had anything else, they can be usefull.

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Jules Verne addresses this very question in his novel The Mysterious Island. In this story, a small group of people are stranded on an uncharted yet hospitable island for months, with barely more than the clothes on their backs. One person in the group is an excellent engineer, who guides the group in building the tools to build the tools. Over the course of the book, the castaways climb the tech tree from mud bricks to a fully functional wired telegraph network.

Based on Verne's writing: Yes, your castaways could work the iron ore, as long as they know how to develop their collection of tools all the way from stone knives to iron picks. It takes several steps -- and it is doable.

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  • $\begingroup$ Agreed, that’s a good book and well developed story. $\endgroup$ – Vladimir Nov 20 '18 at 5:56
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Well, it is definitely doable. The guy from Primitive Technology has already successfully smelted iron, though he's yet to actually make anything with it.

The order he made thing was:

1 - Charcoal

2 - Forge Blower/Forge

3 - Furnace

4 - Improved Blower

As you can see, the only "civilized" thing he uses is his clothes, so it would definitely be possible to smelt it.

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  • $\begingroup$ I've just edited my own post before reading yours :D This is indeed impressive but because of the fuel, it's probably very bad quality iron. Copper or aluminium (starting from beer can or plane remain) would probably make better tools $\endgroup$ – Madlozoz Jun 26 '18 at 8:45
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In this video, an Aussie guy makes a natural draft furnace from only wild materials.

I happen to know a fair bit about survival and primitive skills and the like, so I'll just explain roughly what he does here, plus a bit on how to make the metallic iron into a tool.

So, the first thing to do is to dig a shallow hole, which can be done fairly well with just a blunt stick, to make the base of the furnace. Then make a circle of stones for the floor, ideally about 25 cm in diameter.

Now to get the material. For this, you could get clay from a riverbank, a termite mound, or (Since you mentioned that there was a bog nearby), turf. You'll need a lot of this.

Throw the clay into a large pit, pour a little water in and then mix it with a long stick. Then you'll need some kind of fibrous material (He uses palm leaves), which you should break into pieces and sprinkle over the churned, muddy clay.

Take the clay - which should be wet and gloopy - to your base, along with a vessel of water to moisten it if the need arises. Rub it onto the circle of rocks until it's smooth.

Now you can start to build the wall. Lay the clay around the 25cm circle of floor in a thick ring, leaving one section open. Keep on stacking clay on top of this ring, and after about 3 layers you can start to build over the open section too, forming a door-frame-like structure, but first lay rows of twigs underneath it so the clay doesn't fall in.

The clay will take a good while to dry, so you're probably only gonna end up doing a few layers a day. You should only add another lay after the ones below have hardened, and keep going until the furnace is about 175cm high.

Then what he does is makes something called a tuyere, which is an air pipe, out of clay. Stack a few layers of rings of clay to make a cylinder 7.5cm in diameter.

The next thing to do is to block the doorway, which you can do with more clay. However, make sure you leave a space to put your tuyere, which he puts into the doorway at a 15 degree angle downwards.

When you're happy that the doorway is sealed and the tuyere nose sticks into the inside of the furnace, you need to find your ore, break it into pieces, and roast it. To do this, make a type of cooking fire called a criss-cross fire. Basically, you light your fire, and then lay a lattice of logs (Leaving enough space for the air to flow through) on top.

Crush the ore to a powder and collect it in a container. Now, you need to make the furnace fire. You can use wood, but charcoal works best. I won't go into the details of making charcoal, but it's more or less lighting a fire under a big pile of wood and making a clay shell over it, then breaking it open the following day to find your charcoal.

Stack the charcoal all the way up to the top of the furnace, and then light it on fire at the top. The tall, narrow furnace creates a strong natural draft, and temperatures inside could get to 1,200 degrees centigrade, if not higher.

After an hour and a half of burning, the flames will eventually burn out. When you think it's cool enough to do so, take away the door-stopper and the tuyere and see if there's metallic iron at the bottom.

If there is, make a mold from clay in the shape of the tool you want to make. Melt the iron in a really, really hot and fire and carefully pour it into the mold, making sure not to burn yourself.

This is enough to give you one fairly good iron tool, but banging the metal with a hammer of wood or stone while it's hot will help shape it a bit more.

If these guys are experts in primitive skills, technology and survival, they could potentially do this, but it'd require tremendous expertise to carry out in practice.

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